updated 11/13/2003 4:51:26 AM ET 2003-11-13T09:51:26

From understanding algebra to analyzing data, the nation’s fourth-graders and eighth-graders are getting better at math, new test scores show. Still, more than two out of three students still don’t know as much as they should about math, according to government standards.

IN READING, meanwhile, the performance of students in grades four and eight largely held steady over the past year, following a trend in which math gains have been more pervasive.

Just as with math, more than two-thirds of students tested in reading did not achieve at the level test organizers say is the goal — “proficient,” which means having a demonstrated ability to understand challenging subject matter and apply it to real-world situations.

The 2003 scores, based on representative samples of students, come from the test considered to be the nation’s report card: the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A marker of progress over time, it shows math scores are clearly moving in the right direction.

MINORITIES REDUCE GAP

Compared to their peers in 2000, when the math test was last given, fourth-graders and eighth-graders made sizable gains at every level, from the lowest performers to the top achievers. Black and Hispanic students reduced their performance gap with white students.

“It’s working, and to me, that’s very exciting,” said Betsy Wiens, a middle-school math teacher in Topeka, Kan., and co-chairwoman of her state’s math standards committee. Kansas, among other steps, offered summer math academies to help teachers understand how to engage students in the subject.

“Obviously we’re not there yet, but change is not going to be quick,” Wiens said. “When you change a system, it just takes time.”

Nationwide, 77 percent of fourth-graders reached at least a basic level in math, meaning partial mastery of skills needed for solid academic work. That’s up from 65 percent three years ago. Among eighth-graders, 68 percent performed at basic or better, up from 63 percent.

“The achievement levels represent very challenging standards, so when you have these kinds of increases, they’re to be celebrated,” said Bella Rosenberg, an education policy specialist at the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s important for people to understand that ’basic’ is a pretty high standard — and ’proficient’ is a very high standard.”

In fact, the oft-quoted achievement levels are unrealistic and unfair, said Gerald Bracey, a George Mason University professor and prominent critic of the test’s scoring.

Less than a third of students in both grades can do math at a proficient level based on the test, which is sanctioned by Congress and run by the Education Department.

HOW FEDERAL PLAN WORKS

Such results are increasingly significant because the national test is being used, more than ever, to check whether the states are challenging their students.

This round of scores marks the first time all 50 states were required to take part in the test as a condition of receiving federal money. Now, every two years, new national scores will come out in grades four and eight for reading and math. If students do well on state tests but not on the national assessment, states will probably face greater pressure to explain why.

That’s the kind of second opinion — some call it a shaming device — that federal officials want as they try to shake up public education. Under federal law, every student is to be “proficient” in math and reading by 2013-14, but the states define what that means.

The math test covered such areas as probability, algebra and mathematical reasoning. The reading test ranged from literary analysis to basic daily tasks, such as asking students to analyze characters, explain essay themes and understand train schedules.

READING TOUGHER THAN MATH

Math is the better measure of school performance, Rosenberg said, because research shows reading is more profoundly influenced by factors outside of school, from the number of books in the home to the culture of television and video games. Federal education officials expected little change — and got little — in reading because it was tested just last year.

“We clearly should be doing better, but it’s not horrible,” said Barbara Kapinus, a reading specialist for the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. “Public schools are holding the line in spite of increasing poverty and diversity. You can’t look at those scores without looking at the national culture and economic situation.”

More detailed results are online at .

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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